Helping deadbeat dads

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHAT CAN BE done to help fathers fulfill their obligation to pay child support? Baltimore County is the latest jurisdiction to make the admirable effort to connect deadbeat dads to decent jobs.

It's certainly not uncommon for fathers to fall behind in payments to children with whom they no longer live. Nationally, some $92 billion is owed in child support; Maryland accounts for about $1.4 billion, with about $30 million owed in Baltimore County. While failure to pay can result in jail time, more jurisdictions are figuring out that it may be better to help dads pay up rather than to lock them up.

In Baltimore County, options such as work release and home detention proved to be only marginally effective, as the operational costs often exceeded the amount of support collected. Looking for a better alternative, a group of officials from the Circuit Court's family division, led by Judge John O. Hennegan, last month launched the Family Employment and Support Program. Modeled after similar efforts in Philadelphia and Harford County, the program tries to link fathers who can't pay enough or don't pay at all with better jobs.

Most of the dads targeted by the program are from high-unemployment areas. The majority are 30 to 40 years old, with some history of minor crimes, substance abuse or both. Most have not paid child support in at least six months, and many are about two years behind in payments. When they are brought before a family division judge, they can either opt into the new program or be ordered to participate.

Once in the program, the dads will meet weekly with one of two employment coordinators who will help them find full-time jobs, often by referring them directly to a network of willing employers or by helping them secure additional skills training if necessary. Once employed, the dads will stay in touch by telephone and the coordinators will monitor their support payments. While more than a dozen dads have already been enrolled, court officials anticipate that about 200 defaulters can be under the coordinators' supervision at any given time. Officials project that about $400,000 in support payments can be collected annually.

That would be a good return on the $151,000 federal grant that's largely funding the program for the next 18 months. If successful, the program could have a triple ripple effect: It could be more widely replicated throughout the state, it could give participating dads a better sense of self-worth, and it could give their children a financial boost to help them avoid becoming deadbeat dads - or moms - later in life.

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